Ric Hassani: How I Grew From Gentleman To African Prince
Hassani is a very funny and optimistic person. His laughter and excitement beamed in his vocals and sifted throughout our virtual call. His sophomore album, dubbed The Prince I Became, was recently released and the 17-track project gained intense critical acclaim. But the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) banned its lead single, Thunder Fire You, from receiving radio airplay.
“Nobody had given me that much attention before in Nigeria, so much that the NBC bans my song. That’s incredible,” the singer notes.
With his debut project, African Gentleman, Ric Hassani, originally known as Ikechukwu Ahiauzu, rose to prominence back in 2016. At that time, the Alternative music scene was still in its green stages, with the Hassanis, Funbis, Blackmagics, among others, trying to rear their unique sounds in a pop-saturated industry.
While Hassani’s African Gentleman debut showcased his vocal strength, The Prince I Became flaunts his songwriting prowess more.
The entire project feels like a masterclass on love. The 32-year-old River State native delicately explores the subject of love, taking the listener through many classes on professing affection, fidelity, breakups, and toxicity.
Interestingly, he throws in a Christian Gospel record, Victory Belongs To Jesus, which not only feels nice on the album, but would also do well on even secular performance stages. Apart from the album’s tracklisting, which continually climaxes at several points and distracts the listener from mid-point towards the end, the entire project is brilliantly and intentionally crafted.
“I really wanted to make people see how I have grown. I really wanted to listen to people more. With the first album, I was like ‘this is how I want to do it and I really don’t care what people say, but with this second one, I wanted to listen to people more,” he says.
Interestingly, Hassani exclusively announced that he is set to drop an 11-tracker deluxe album in two weeks, which would be laden with more party popping ‘bangers’ as he connotes. Collaborating alongside A-list singers such as Peruzzi, Reekado Banks, Waje, among others, he affirms that the project would be as enchanting as it would be energetic.
From his days as an emerging rapper, under the moniker ‘Rico Slim’, which he also describes as an unfortunate period, to his struggles “sleeping on studio floors” and spending “N150, daily, on food” pursuing his musical ambitions, despite attaining a Masters degree (M.Sc.) in Energy Economics, from the University of Surrey, in England, and the first degree in Economics from Covenant University, in Nigeria; down to why he switched up his musical personae from Afro-soul to Pop-soul; and on losing his dad the very day he released the album’s controversial lead single, Ric Hassani breaks it all down in this interview with CHINONSO IHEKIRE, intimately illustrating his transition from the African Gentleman to The Prince I Became.
Congratulations on the new project, how has the experience been like?
IT has been great just to see the reception. I was honestly very nervous, because, on this album, there are so many newer sounds and subjects that I tried that people are not used to, subjects like ‘Thunder Fire You’ and ‘Victory Belongs to Jesus’. I was scared of how people would take it, but the reception has been great.
What was on your mind when you started out to make this album?
Honestly, I just wanted to show people’s growth; my last album was almost five years ago. I wanted people to feel like this guy actually had growth. If I had given them an album that had my normal sound, they wouldn’t complain, but they would say I haven’t really grown. I really wanted to make people see how I have grown; I wanted to make it bigger, like bigger vocals, choirs, and instrumentals.
How would you describe your typical sound?
It is like Afro-soul. I wanted to go more Pop-soul; Afro-soul is a lot more niche, it has that alternative vibe. I wanted to make more pop records.
People know you more as an alternative singer. Tell us about your early days in music?
I had some songs back in the day like Dance, Dance, Baby Dance, or Double-Double; I was trying to be an Iyanya or Flavour. That was what was pop at the time. It got to a point where I got fed up because I was trying to do and not actually doing. I just told myself to just do. The ‘do’ was Gentlemen, and that was the first song that I actually really just liked. Sometimes, we artistes make songs because it is hot or trending now. We hardly just make songs we like or that make us feel nice when we sing it. The gentleman was the first record that I made that I liked. I was like, ‘Leave it like that.’
At some point, you were rapping?
Unfortunately, there was a time I was rapping; it blows my mind as well. Yes, I was actively trying to go into music at then. This is my excuse for rapping: Back then, rap was the reigning thing; it was Eminem, 50 Cent, Dr Dre, G-unit. At that time, if you were doing music and you were a guy, you had to rap; the only cool singing guy was Micheal Jackson. Me, being that my voice is high-pitched if I sang then, my guys were going to beat me up. So, I had to learn how to rap, just because I knew that I wanted to do music.
What was going on in your life then?
I was probably between 11 and 13. I entered school really young, so at this point, I was already in senior secondary. I was in the boarding house.
What were you aiming to study then?
I wanted to be either an architect or engineer; I ended up doing Economics. It was my dad who woke up one day and was like, ‘I already have an Engineer in the house, and you are going to do Economics.’ I didn’t like Economics, but he made me do it and now I have no regrets.
Do you think that decision influenced you into doing music full-time?
Honestly, now that you say it, it really did. If I had done Architecture or Engineering, I would have been so engrossed with it that I wouldn’t do music. I didn’t know what Economics was, so, it was just about cramming and passing. So, in my free time, I had to do something that made me feel alive; that was what music was. So, this is the first time I am saying it, but honestly, if I hadn’t done Economics, I would not have been a musician.
Your parents are both academics. When did they find out that you were into music?
That was after I graduated from Covenant University. I grew up in Port-Harcourt, but immediately after I graduated, I moved to Lagos to live with a friend of mine. So, they were like ‘Where is this guy?’ I called them and told them that I was in Lagos and was rapping. They were opposed to it for like two years; this was from June 2009 to September 2011.
What changed for them?
I think it was when they started seeing some kind of small success; it was when they started seeing that I am okay. I think the main thing for my parents is they want you to be okay, they would be fine. Once they found out I was independent financially and I was respected and they weren’t getting bad news about me, then they were okay. Honestly, they are my biggest fans, especially my dad who I just lost three weeks ago.
Speaking about your dad, you were still very vocal online with pushing your album, despite the fact that you were mourning. What was the motivation?
Honestly, I have no idea. My dad died on the day that I dropped the album’s lead single, Thunder Fire You. Before I announced the album, my dad was already gone for two weeks. I was even more vocal online than I had ever been before. I really don’t know what happened.
What do you think he would have thought about the album?
He was bedridden for about two years; he was really ill for two years. His illness started during my first American tour, in June 2019. I used to make a lot of videos and send them to a family group chat that we have on WhatsApp. My dad is not in the group, but my mum would take the videos and show my dad. And my dad was always like ‘Show me more.’ He is just such a great guy. He wanted me to be really happy and respected because we grew up on more respect than loved. It wasn’t really ‘Oh, come here let me hug you’ or ‘Oh, you came first in class, I love you.’ It was respected. I am sure he is very happy about the music now.
Let’s take it back to your music, what were your major influences as a singer?
Firstly, I was influenced by classical music. My dad always played classical music, because it helped him study; he was a professor. My mum used to play a lot of highlife. However, I hung out with my dad a lot more. So, I tilted a lot more towards classical music. I also joined the Anglican Classical Choir when I was six or seven years old. So, I used to sing Soprano in the choir. Those were my early influences.
At this time, I didn’t know that I could be a singer as a job; I was just singing. It wasn’t until I started listening to Craig David, Usher, Whitney Houston, and Boys II Men. When it got to Breathless by Shane Ward, and after I heard that song, I was like ‘Yo, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’ I was in 400 Level at that time. There is a point where he goes on a very high key and I still remember the pitch till today; it sounded like the most beautiful thing I ever heard in my life. I told myself that if I ever made a record, I must make a point where I repeat that same pitch; I did that in the song Gentleman.
There was a point where my pitch went really high. Funny enough, I have never said this in an interview. However, that was the point when I decided what I would do with the rest of my life; that was 2009.
What were your major struggles breaking out as an artist and how did you overcome them?
Honestly, I can’t think of any struggle; I don’t see anything as a struggle; everything to me is a journey. This sounds like some motivational speaker talks, but believe me, I am not trying to be one; I am honestly just telling you how it has done me before.
There was a time when I left Port Harcourt and I was squatting from friend to friend in Lagos because I had no place to stay. So, I used to sleep on the floor in studios; I did that for about six or seven years. Yes, there were times I was seriously broke and had to buy food in a nylon bag; it was like N30 per spoon. I had to buy like two spoons because I could only afford N150 per day. So, I bought two spoons in the morning and one at night, every day. I bought it so much that the lady even became my friend and used to sell extras for me for free. I bought it in a nylon bag because I couldn’t afford the takeaway pack.
And then, my parents were on the other hand shouting at me, saying that I was wasting my degree. Also, the music industry was shouting at me saying that ‘You can’t blow. Your voice is too thin. You don’t have a sexy voice. You have medicated glasses so you can’t make it.’ Everywhere was just slamming me.
So, how did you fund your recordings?
My sisters helped me, their husbands too; N10,000 here, N50,000 there, everything went into the music. When I made some money, I reinvested it in the music. That’s what I am still doing now, except that the money is now more. Before, if it is N30,000, I would get it from my sister, now it is N10million I would get from a show or a tour; I reinvest. It is just more money now. I never saw it as a struggle; it was all part of the journey. What kept me going was just my dream.
There were times I didn’t want to do it anymore – even up until last year. Just before this album, I almost gave up. The thing about dreams is it torments you. Today, I might wake up and say that I am not doing it again. But when I sleep at night, the dreams are in my head; they even come more. I literally hear songs or melodies in my dreams, and I wake up and I have them. I can go and do something else, but those dreams would frustrate me from enjoying that new thing. So, that’s the situation. It was like madness. I could be watching a movie or doing something else and a tune just pops into my head, and then I get absent-minded and go somewhere to write the song.
Looking at the direction of the album, there is a very dominant cultural presence on the album. What was the agenda with that?
First of all, I have always liked this pan-African or ‘Lion King-ey’ kind of sound; I have always loved stuff like that. When I made that album, the first country I went to for a show was Malawi. When I started going to Uganda, Zambia, Mauritius, Namibia, and Cote d’Ivoire for shows, I started meeting these ‘Lion King-ey’ guys and I fell in love with it a lot more; I really wanted to put it in my album. That is why I had Fumbani Changaya in my album, from Zambia, or Sauti Sol from Kenya. First of all, Sauti Sol is incredible guys. I really wanted to have that African presence on the album, as opposed to a Nigerian-dominated presence.
Let’s talk about a song like Thunder Fire You. Why did you choose to write that song?
Firstly, I wrote that song two years ago. I was actually in that situation; that situation happened to me. I wrote it to release myself from the situation; I had left the relationship and I wrote it. For a lot of people, our release is just to make a joke out of a bad situation; It is just to make us feel better. That is how I wrote that song. I wrote it to laugh about the stupid relationship that I am in; it was just a stupid relationship. It was completely insane, that was why I wrote that song.
So, you hadn’t ever had that type of relationship experience before?
No not at all. That was why I wrote the song. When I wrote the song, I just forgot about it. When I was recording my album this period, I played the song for my producer and he was like this song is mad (great). He made the beat and we recorded the song. I played it for Waje, and she was like this song is great. I just decided to put it on the album.
With this album, I really wanted to listen to people more. With the first album, I was like ‘this is how I want to do it and I really don’t care what people say, but with this second one, I wanted to listen to people more. Honestly, I get it now and it really worked.
With the backlash that the song had from NBC, what are your thoughts on that?
Honestly, incredible. I am telling you. I was so happy. I am still so happy that my song was banned; it is such a great thing. It was banned on the radio. Nobody had given me that much attention before, in Nigeria, so much that the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission bans my song. That’s incredible.
You’re such a radical optimist?
Yes, I am actually. More people even got to know about the song, because of the ban. I can now say that ‘There was a time I made the song and the NBC banned the song.’ What are songs? I can make more songs; it is not a big deal.
Who are your top five artistes you would like to work with now?
I love Johnny Drille; he’s like my brother, that’s my guy. I have known him for the longest time, even before the fame. He is such a great guy; we laugh and gist all the time. We support each other all the time; that is my guy. Johnny is just my friend; he has respect for me too as well. It is very difficult and rare for you to have a friend that likes you and respects you. He likes me as Ric Hassani and he respects me. I also like Waje, although we have a song on my deluxe album, which is coming out in two weeks.
How many songs are there?
It is extra 11 songs; that’s like a full album already. Funny, this was even ready before the main album. On this deluxe album, we have collaborations with Peruzzi, Reekado Banks, Waje, Ajebo Hustlers, and Lady Lava from Colombia. I even have Spanish versions of the album.
Did the pandemic affect your recording process for the album?
Yes, it really did. So, I have a studio in my house. If there weren’t any pandemics, I’d go out – hang out, watch a movie or just walk on the street – and come back to record. I couldn’t do that during the peak of the pandemic. So, that made me to be in my feelings a lot more. It now made my album a very deep and heavy album. I wanted a very soft, bubble-gum music, flowers and rainbows kind of album.
However, the pandemic made it very deep; it is too deep, but people like it. I guess that’s what God wanted. So, this Deluxe dilutes the album. I was shooting for bangers and not for music or harmonies or growth. The deluxe album is about bangers. I have a song with Peruzzi, Reekado and Ajebo Hustlers. Bangers.
So, who else would you work with?
I would say C-4 Pedro; he is like my best friend. We are so close that we can’t make music. Even if we get to the studio, we would end up gisting and laugh.
What about your contemporaries, like the Fireboys and Terms of today?
So, I have been trying to work with him for a while. I have known Fireboy for years and he was actually a writer. I just saw him on Instagram and he had like 1,000 followers at the time. I just called him and said, ‘Bro, I think you are dope. Come over to a session and write some songs with me.’ He came over to the studio and we wrote like six or seven songs that week. Three months later, he is Fireboy. I was like ‘What!’ I honestly think that it was in my studio session that he met Cracker Mallo, the guy that produced Jealously; they’re still my guys.